Saturday, December 27, 2008

HEADS

Some years ago I was alone in Siena. One fine morning at 6 o’clock I decided to have an espresso at Piazza del Campo. There were hardly any people around, and I was happy that I didn’t have to endure watching the tourists having the same expression on their faces – of wonder, though alas, not true wonder but a fake kind; the kind that is prepared especially for the folks back home, and which says the following: I’ve been in Siena, I’ve seen all these things, I understood nothing, how wonderful. So, if you want to be spared such pain, take my advice: go enjoying your espresso at the most attractive tourist sites, but not after 6 in the morning.

Thus fortunate, as I sat there in splendid quietude, a homeless person approached me. He asked me if I enjoyed what I saw. I certainly did, I replied. Then he said that if I was up to it, he would be willing to show me other sites that definitely looked much better at such early hours than otherwise. I was up to it, so off we went. He took me on top of the city first and then we walked for three hours. We ended our sightseeing at the Basilica of San Domenico, where they have Catherine of Siena’s head on display. Catherine, who was a most learned scholar, a scholastic philosopher and theologian, a tertiary of the Domincan order, died of a stroke at the age of 33 in 1380 in Rome. As it wasn’t easy to smuggle bodies from one region to another in those days, the people of Siena didn’t have any problems using their heads most creatively: they decapitated Catherine, put her head in a basket and off they ventured towards home. At the border, when asked to open their parcel, even a miracle happened. The head had transformed into a bunch of rose petals. As I stood watching Catherine’s head, that didn’t stay a rose, my homeless guide turned to me and said: “Cara mia, che sinistro, ma anche sublime, no?” “Certissimo,” I replied.

Siena for me will remain forever bounded with Sergio, who told me that I had a most enchanted head myself. Back home, upon telling folks about my experience, they all doubted that my head, however enchanting, had its wits in it, when I trusted and allowed a stranger to guide me at 6 o’clock in the morning. I said: “whatever.” Sergio gave me the best tour of the most beloved sites in Siena that I could ever think of. He told me the most unlikely stories. He gave me priceless information on what classical concert was on, when and where, and when we departed he asked me in the most courteous way that I’ve ever experienced whether he could kiss me on my cheek. “Certissimo,” I said again. Sometimes, I can still feel the warmth in his lips. Not even Catherine can beat that.

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